Screening and Early Intervention: Important Before, Important Now, and Important in the Future


Dr. Clay Cook

If you believe in early, timely intervention for students who have a need for additional support, then you have to believe in screening. Whether in medicine or in schools, screening is a proactive assessment used with all or a selective group of individuals to detect a need that warrants intervention. Screening combats the wait-to-fail phenomenon that riddles many school systems, as students whose needs go undetected, go unsupported. Early, timely intervention is made challenging without screening that attempts to proactively detect students who have a need for additional support. 

School-based screening, however, has utility beyond proactively detecting students in need of support as the data can be used to monitor the health and effectiveness of Tier 1 supports. For example, the number of students detected as having a need is a reflection of the degree to which students are getting their needs met in the foundational level of Tier 1 supports. When schools have a high number of students detected as having a need (for example, 30%), then the data indicate that Tier 1 supports should be enhanced. The screening data can be used as a system-level progress monitoring instrument to examine the impact of efforts to improve the comprehensiveness of Tier 1 implementation. As Tier 1 improves, fewer students are detected as having a need. 

Screening in social, emotional, and behavioral areas of functioning is akin to academic screening whereby the goal is to detect students who may be in need of additional support. The additional support could be differentiated supports as part of Tier 1, an intervention that is delivered above and beyond Tier 1, or connection to enriching after school activities or out-of-school community-based services. 

One of the first questions to address when a student is detected as having a need by a screener is whether the data indicate that (a) Tier 1 supports need to be improved, (b) the student needs differentiated supports as part of Tier 1, or (c) the student needs an intervention that goes above and beyond Tier 1 and differentiated supports. In this way, screening data do not indicate right away that the only option once a student is detected as having a need is to organize the delivery of an intervention. 

Good screeners also help make sure students who have a need are noticed and detected and not missed. If a need goes undetected, it goes unsupported. This is particularly important in situations where proactive, time support could help prevent more negative outcomes later for the student or classroom. 

Screening and early intervention were important before the COVID-19 pandemic and America’s renewed awakening to racial violence and injustice, it is even more important now considering everything that has transpired, and it will continue to be important as things progress into the future. 

IM4 provides access to a free screener that can be used to proactively detect students with social, emotional, and behavioral needs. The resulting data can be used to determine next steps, which is either to intervene or push in to improve aspects of Tier 1. 

About the Author: Dr. Clay Cook is the John and Nancy Peyton Faculty Fellow in Child and Adolescent Wellbeing at the University of Minnesota and Associate Professor in the School Psychology Program. He has extensive research and practical experiences involving the implementation of multi-tiered systems of support to promote children’s social, emotional and behavioral wellbeing as the foundation for academic and life success.

Download a Universal Screener